For immigrant adults, a higher education does not always lead to equal employment opportunities

By Marie-Helene Doumet
Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills


In our inter-connected and digitalised world, more people are looking abroad in search of better jobs and opportunities. At the same time, conflict and poverty have forced millions of adults and children to leave their country in pursuit of a better future elsewhere. While many may find better conditions than in the country they left behind, fitting into the workforce can be tough.

An immigrant’s ability to integrate and contribute to their host community depends on their skills and education, and where they ultimately land. Some countries have welcomed migrants and refugees of all backgrounds; others have implemented policies to attract only those with highly demanded skills. However, as we analyse in this month’s Education Indicators in Focus, a better education does not always translate into better employment opportunities for foreign-born adults.

In our brief, we examine the effect of education on employment outcomes for both foreign-born adults and those born within the country. The findings highlight just how much immigrants’ educational background differs from one country to another. In about half of the countries with available data, foreign-born adults tend to be more educated than the local population. Much of this has to do with a host country’s economic context or immigration policies. For example, while about one-fifth of people in Belgium and Ireland were born in a different country, foreign-born adults living in Ireland are much more likely to hold a tertiary degree than those living in Belgium. With the second highest GDP per capita across OECD countries and a highly innovative economy, Ireland has attracted an educated workforce whose skills have fuelled its growth.
Foreign-born, tertiary-educated adults are less likely to be employed than native-born adults with the same education
While higher education may help foreign-born adults avoid unemployment, being better educated does not always guarantee a higher quality of life, relative to native-born populations. In fact, in all countries, foreign-born, tertiary-educated adults are less likely to be employed than native-born adults with the same education – even in countries with a highly qualified international workforce.

In some countries, differences in pay are even more stark than differences in employment: while foreign-born tertiary-educated adults in Italy are 14% less likely to be employed than native Italians, they earn 32% less. In other countries, it is the opposite. France has one of the lowest employment rates for foreign-born tertiary-educated adults compared to its native population, but those who do have a job earn about as much as workers who were born in the country.

Even if they have a tertiary degree, foreigners face many challenges to put their skills to use in their host country. Foreigners may face language barriers, and the skills developed in their home country may not match those that are in demand in their new communities, forcing many to work in lower level jobs. In Sweden, for example, tertiary-educated foreign-born adults score more than 40 points lower on the literacy assessment of the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) relative to their native-born peers; and one out of four works in a job requiring only an upper secondary degree or lower.

The relationship between migrants’ skills and employment is more complex than it may seem, but understanding these dynamics is essential to ensuring their successful integration. Skilled immigrants offer opportunities for economies to develop and grow competitively, yet unskilled workers are at risk of exclusion as they move to knowledge-based economies that place a higher premium on skills. Targeted education policies can support the continuous development of migrants, while promoting sustainable employment opportunities and benefiting the community.

More than 250 million people around the world today live outside their country of birth. Ensuring their smooth integration should be a win-win scenario.


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